Home Depot vice president to lead Alliance Theatre’s board

Jocelyn Hunter will be the first person of color to chair the board.

The Alliance Theatre has named Jocelyn Hunter as as the chair of its board, making her the first person of color to helm the group in the theater’s 52-year history.

In ascending to the post, Hunter, who is the vice president and deputy general counsel for Home Depot, also becomes the first person of color to lead any board at the Woodruff Arts Center, perhaps the largest cultural arts center in the Southeast. The Alliance, plus the High Museum of Art and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, comprise the partners of the Woodruff.

Hunter, who has served on the Alliance board since 2006, most recently as vice-chair, will succeed Lila Hertz as chair.

In a statement, Susan V. Booth, artistic director of Alliance Theatre praised Hertz’s service and welcomed Hunter to her new role.

“We have been tremendously fortunate in having had a streak of fiercely smart and deeply passionate board leaders, and I’m delighted to see that trend continuing,” said Booth. “Lila Hertz has been – and continues to be – a consummate example of a tireless and inspiring leader who is ready, willing, and able to spend her phenomenal social capital on behalf of the Alliance. That we get to follow that with Jocelyn Hunter’s leadership is truly a gift that builds strength on strength. Jocelyn has a brilliant strategic mind and has long been a driving voice both within and on behalf of the Alliance.”

Hunter officially starts her duties on June 1. She spoke exclusively with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her remarkable election and how she’ll help the Alliance make it through the disruption and peril of the pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You are coming in at a crisis time for American theater, and for the Alliance, given everything that we’ve gone through with COVID-19. What are some of the biggest challenges you see moving forward that need to be immediately addressed?

A: It is an unprecedented time. And certainly, there are challenges facing all of the arts. The Alliance is not exempt from that, and we will be dealing with them until we return to normalcy. And I’m not sure when that will be. But certainly, it’s a challenge for how you present the art because you don’t have the stage. You don’t have a way to invite audiences in, so you have to be nimble. You have to think of other ways to connect.

The Alliance Theatre had been performing on its newly-renovated Coca-Cola Stage a little more than a year when the pandemic closed down the theater world in Atlanta. Photo: Michael Boatright

Credit: Michael Boatright

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Credit: Michael Boatright

Q: You’re still the board chair of the Atlanta History Center, as well.

A: Until Dec. 31st. (laughs) I’m in the last official days.

Q: You’re talking about two pillar cultural organizations in Atlanta. What are some overlapping challenges you see between it and the Alliance?

A: The same challenges are facing the Atlanta History Center. How do you connect with your audience when there is social distancing? How do you stream? What do you put online? How do you connect in the virtual world when the physical world is not as easy to manage? There is also synergy around the social justice idea. How do you continue to work in the areas of diversity and inclusion writ large, not sort of in a very narrow sense?

Q: The staff and board at the Alliance made plans long ago for the future, not with COVID-19 in mind. So, how long can performances be suspended before you have to make some hard decisions regarding staffing, or maybe reduced seasons?

A: I think one of the things we’ve learned from COVID-19 is whatever planning we made today, we may have to change it. We’re just going to have to be nimble and figure out what it is that we’re going to have to do, as the pandemic continues to unfold. And certainly, that brings with it financial challenges. The thing that has been really great about the Alliance Theatre is that a lot of thought has gone into figuring out how to continue to do the best we can from a financial perspective.

David De Vries (left) and Bart Hansard reprise their roles as Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol” at the Alliance Theatre. PHOTO CREDIT: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

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Credit: Greg Mooney

Q: But what does that mean, exactly? For example, you mentioned you do racial justice projects at the theater. Those things take money to produce.

A: We’re looking at the facts as they present themselves and making decisions as we go along, both with respect to what can be presented, with respect to what we can do and also with respect to the finances. In the beginning, everybody thought, at least I thought, “This will never last that long. It’s just gonna be like a month, we’ll be back at it.” And then nine months later, you’re still sitting in your house because we’re still social distancing. So you continue to iterate, to make sure that you’re confronting it in the moment, but not going too far because this has not been something that you could really plan through, because we’ve never seen it before.

Q: Prior to COVID-19, you knew that this was going to be your turn at-bat. What is the path that you want to chart for the organization, and how has that shifted?

A: My job is to support, to make sure that we’re fulfilling the things that we say we’re going to fulfill and provide advice. And I want to be very helpful as we continue to confront how COVID-19 is impacting the theater. In addition to that, I am interested in continuing our efforts around diversity. You know, once we can get past the pandemic, we will see what bandwidth we have to do other things, but we’re probably looking at the better part of 2021, where we’re still going to be dealing with a pandemic.

Q: Have you watched any of the theater’s virtual performances?

A: I really like a Christmas Carol. I thought it was wonderful. And I am a big, big fan of “A Very Terry Christmas” with Terry Burrell. Fabulous!

Terry Burrell performs at the Alliance Theatre’s virtual show, “A Very Terry Christmas.”
Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Q: Not only are you the first person of color to lead the Alliance’s board, but I was also stunned when I learned you were the first person of color to lead any board at the Woodruff Arts Center. What does it mean stepping into this role, particularly, after the summer, where issues of race and racial reckoning exploded?

A: It’s interesting because I have been on the board for such a long time, it feels like a very natural progression. But at the same time, I understand that it is a very significant moment. And so, I feel honored. I’m honored to serve in these moments. You don’t know what life is going to bring at any point. And certainly, life has brought a lot of challenges. But that sort of galvanizes me. I am energized by it and ready to help confront these challenges. And I think is great serendipity that it is me.

Q: There was a ripple effect after the killing of George Floyd that seemed to touch everything including theater. A group of legendary playwrights, actors and producers of color, including Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy winners started the movement “We See You White American Theater,” to bring equity to theater on all levels. Are you familiar with the initiative, its manifesto and prescriptions for change?

A: I’ve not read that document. But what I did do was there were a number of conversations amongst theater people in Atlanta over the summer, and I participated in one or two of those. I listened in to understand what concerns were.

Q: What specific concerns stood out that you thought, “We can do that at the Alliance.”

A: There was a comment around being welcoming and certainly, that is something that you can very easily adjust to make sure people feel welcome in the space who may not look exactly like a majority. That’s something that I thought you know, “Wow, what a simple thing.”

Q: Sometimes when we as people of color, assume roles, and we are either the first to do something, there is often celebration, but then sometimes there is this tremendous, invisible weight you may feel that you carry. I know you said you felt grateful, but do you feel that weight?

A: I don’t feel a weight. I have been on the board with the Alliance since 2006. I know the staff and management really well. I know a number of people around the Walker Art Center. It feels like a first because I am the first African-American who is the chair, but I have been a leader and been contributing for a long time, so my past contributions remove some of the weight.

Q: What is it you want people to say about your tenure as board chair?

A: When I am done, I want to have done work that will enhance the reputation of the Alliance theatre as a cultural institution, I want to have met the challenge of COVID-19. And I believe there’s enough great talent and passion to meet these challenges and to continue the great legacy the Alliance has had — and will continue to have. I’m happy to be a part of it.